LINCOLN — The University of Nebraska soon will join a large-scale experiment to bring courses to the masses online.
NU is one of 10 large public university systems to announce today new agreements with Coursera, a company that has created Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs.
Coursera, one of two leading providers of open course content, already has agreements with 70 leading universities in the U.S. and elsewhere, including seven Big Ten institutions.
NU President J.B. Milliken said he views the new effort as an expansion of the University of Nebraska's heritage of providing educational opportunities across distances.
“I'm very pleased to be working with Coursera to explore how we might leverage technology to expand access to high-quality University of Nebraska course content to many more people,” Milliken said. “This is an exciting new opportunity that builds on our long history of providing distance learning to students everywhere.”
Depending on faculty interest, the first NU courses for this program could be available as early as this fall.
The new program will complement, not replace, NU's existing online education program, said Mary Niemiec, associate vice president for distance education and director of the University of Nebraska Online Worldwide.
NU currently offers about 130 online academic programs, spread across all four campuses, she said. They all provide academic credit and are intended to result in a degree.
To this point, MOOCs generally don't result in college credit or progress toward a degree. They are taken as stand-alone courses, perhaps for personal enrichment or to learn specific content from a renowned professor.
“Our commitment with Online Worldwide is a commitment toward a degree,” Niemiec said. “We focus on getting our students a bachelor's degree, a master's or a doctoral program.”
Though NU has not yet identified any courses for the new program, Niemiec said she expects that NU's offerings will come in areas where it is known for its expertise and leadership.
“Signing this contract as a university opens the door for our campuses and our faculty to decide what courses should come forward as open access,” she said. “Each of the campuses and the faculty at the campuses will be making that decision.”
The only cost for NU in the partnership will be for development fees for each course it creates, she said. Those fees can be refunded if the course proves popular.
Although students who complete classes through Coursera have the option, for a fee, to obtain a certificate of completion, there are no plans so far for NU to offer academic credit for MOOCs, Niemiec said. That would be a decision to be made at the campus level and by faculty.
Today's announcement is the latest ramping up of higher education's MOOC experiment, which began as a way to sample courses taught by superstar faculty at elite institutions like Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It followed rapid expansion of online degree programs by for-profit colleges and public universities.
It was a way for the elite colleges to expand their brand without diluting their prestige. Now, MOOCs are moving into the large public institutions that provide much of American higher education.
Indeed, Niemiec said one advantage to NU's agreement with Coursera is that the university can promote its reputation among international students, who are leading users of MOOCs.
Other Coursera partners being announced today are the Universities of Colorado, Houston, Kentucky, Georgia, New Mexico and Tennessee, West Virginia University, the State University of New York and the Tennessee Board of Regents.
Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller said the announcement is another step toward addressing growing problems of access and affordability in higher education.
“We think the coming decade will see a transformation in the way education is delivered, where teachers and online content come together to better serve students on campus and beyond,” she said.
However, MOOCs are beginning to encounter some resistance.
In recent weeks, faculty at Duke and Amherst have voted against elements of expanding MOOCs on their campuses, while 58 Harvard faculty last week called for an examination of ethical issues related to Harvard's participation in edX, a MOOC-producing consortium led by Harvard and MIT. Some California faculty have protested plans to use MOOCs to supplement teaching on campus.
SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher said MOOCs may provide a means for cash-strapped universities to do more with less.
“It's been a challenge in reduced financial capacity to offer all the courses all the time that every student needs to complete a degree,” she said. “That's what slows students down, our inability to provide degree-required courses students need at exactly the speed they need them.”
Milliken said it is too soon to say whether MOOCs will develop into a low-cost alternative for providing required courses.
“This is simply a beginning,” he said. “This will be an opportunity for our faculty to be a part of the leading institutions that are thinking about how MOOCs and technology will help develop education.”
This report includes material from the Associated Press.